Homocysteine, a non-protein amino acid, is an intermediate in the metabolism of methionine and biosynthesis of cysteine. It has gained prominence in the past half-century because its accumulation in the body has been linked to increased risk and occurrence of atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease. Homocystinuria is due to errors in metabolism and homocysteinemia is attributed to polymorphisms in the genes involved in methionine metabolism and cysteine biosynthesis, and deficiencies in the nutrients folic acid, and vitamins B12 and B6.
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Proof of these can be found in the results of genetic and dietary studies. The clinical quantification of homocysteine has evolved through the years and routine tests are currently available. Baseline homocysteine concentration for normal adults has been identified to be between 12-15 Âµmol/L. Elevated levels of homocysteine can be reduced with folate and B vitamins supplementation, but this intervention does not work in patients who have suffered stroke or heart attacks.
More research studies have supported the hypothesis that elevated homocysteine causes CVD and is not just a marker for the disease. However, despite the amount homocysteine research performed, many issues remain to be resolved, among which are the elucidation of the molecular mechanism of the direct action of homocysteine and the standardization of techniques for the quantification of homocysteine levels.
The role of elevated levels of homocysteine in blood plasma has been the subject of intense study and literature reviews for more than 50 years since an association between defects in homocysteine metabolism and thromboembolism was observed. This role was further verified in patients with homocystinuria and abnormalities in vitamin B12 metabolism with general vascular damage and widespread thrombosis. Subsequently, the homocysteine theory of arteriosclerosis was formulated by McCully and Wilson in 1975. Since then, the positive association between the risk of cardiovascular disease and homocysteine levels in the general population was validated in many epidemiological studies (Boushey, et al., 1995; Verhoef, et al., 1996; Eikelboom et al., 1999; Humphrey et al., 2008). Significantly, these studies found that small increases of homocysteine levels in blood increase the risk of coronary heart disease. Another important finding was the role of diet, vitamins and folic acid in lowering homocysteine levels.
Some authors have questioned the direct homocysteine-cardiovascular disease link, basing their conclusions on a review of longitudinal, prospective studies (Kaul, Zadeh and Shah, 2006). Accordingly, the evidence is not strong enough to warrant a causal effect, the mechanisms for how homocysteine causes cardiovascular disease has not been elucidated, and that there has been no proof showing that interventions of decreasing homocysteine levels have modified the risk for atherosclerosis (Kaul, Zadeh and Shah, 2006). Moreover, homocysteine has been proposed to be a marker, and not a cause of CVD (Wierzbicki, 2007).
Recent studies have proposed a mechanism on increased risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) due to elevated homocysteine.
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